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Restaurant review: Fifteen London

Angie Sammons finds the passions are still burning at Jamie Oliver's starship social enterprrise

Written by . Published on March 11th 2010.

Restaurant review: Fifteen London

FOR all I know, Jamie Oliver might be a right bastard, really.

He might set fire to his staff, seize cruel eggs from cages, when no one is looking, and beat them to death into his telly omelettes.

He might be the type that snaffles his best-selling recipes from internet message boards in the US of A (I knew one multi-millionaire celebrity chef who actually did do this), and hoard sacks of Turkey Dinosaurs in his freezer. What better way to silence the tired and mewling offspring at the end of a long day reasoning with Doncaster's chippie-loving mums?

He might be laughing all the way to the ethical bank with loadsa lovely dosh from pricking our sausage consciences and assaulting battery farming. He may absolutely not give a toss, in truth, when he's hobnobbing at Number 10, about policies to educate the masses in cooking food that won't kill them.

In short, he might be one cynical little pukka..

But I don't think so.

We found ourselves in Shoreditch recently. There had been an opportunity to review any restaurant in the capital. In other words, I was working there and at some point would need to eat – and fifteen is one of my favourite numbers.

Also everyone knows Fifteen, and – as discussed with the nice media lady when attempting to book a table on a packed Saturday night – people up north do like to read about things “down there”, so to speak.

This part of Hackney is a hive. Where once the hush of graveyards reigned after six o'clock, now myriad bars and clubs clamour. The party-minded, like my friend, venture out to them as late (or early) as 3am. Because they can.

If it wasn't for Fifteen's compelling story – Oliver took a bunch of young people with not much going for them and transformed them into top class chefs in a TV documentary series – I might not hold out much hope, around here, of enjoying one of the most delightfully executed dinners I have had in several years.

As it was, I left utterly happy. And I never leave a restaurant utterly happy, especially when 200 quid lighter.

Sure, Fifteen has a modern, well lit, sophisticated dining room, but Bank Robber, by the Clash is playing in this Warehouse basement and the food, remarkably for any restaurant, looks like it's actually going to do us good.

They have trained them properly in here. All the front of house staff are young and fresh, with bright eyes and good looks fitted as standard. They are Jamie's perfect mates from that hazy TV world where everyone laughs as they put the world to rights while piling into his tear 'n' share pizza to a soundtrack of sweet pop.

“We are a family at Fifteen,” explains waiter Levant who has been part of the tale since the beginning in 2002. “We speak in Jamie's voice.”

This parlance does not extend to addressing us as “geezers”, but instead refers to their easy knowledge which is shared eagerly, should you require it.

“We use beans flown in from Tuscany,” we are casually informed as gorgeous dressed Cornish crab on a creamy bed of borlotti arrives. It is adorned with baby sorrel, a herb last grown in The Good Life, and anorexic slivers of red chilli. It is the first of many dishes that deliver pleasure with a little kick: arranged unions blessed by contrasting colours, textures and flavours, like the Campana mozzarella that turns into a tangy, creamy and savoury explosion when introduced to clementines, mint and parmesan.

In the dining room of Fifteen (upstairs is the rowdier and more affordable Trattoria) we are eating from the tasting menu at £60 per person. Wine pairings with each of the four courses takes it up to £100.

The baked foccacia with dressed olives (excellent) and salami (ditto) had got things off to a confident start. A primi plate of inviting pappardelle encasing a rich and meaty Buccleuch Estate ragu was the real homemade pasta deal, but my friend won this event with a hearty and rather marvellous potato gnocchi affair with octopus, braised in white wine with chilli, garlic, capers, tomatoes and olive pangrattato.

All is redolent of what you will find in Oliver's books, the ones which take up too much space our kitchen 200 miles away. Even down to menu descriptions like “wicked” fish pie which are sparing. Incidentally, from our home turf is tonight's executive head chef and the trainees' mentor, Andrew Parkinson of Ellesmere Port.

Much further south lies the inspiration for this place. Partly as an accident of climate, the Italians have a lot to shout about on the food front. And the poorer the better. Historically, raw materials were nurtured and raised by people whose only riches were their passions for making the most from little. It's the recurring theme in everything Oliver does.

Thus, pork shoulder, the cut of peasants, is made fit for a king. This is partly to do with its provenance, it comes from pigs at Peter Gott's Sillfield farm near Keswick. It has been braised in rosemary, garlic and bay and is served with braised celeriac, cavolo nero and pan juices. The meat's texture and deep flavours are indescribable beyond the word luscious.

Char grilled sea bass is, of course, line caught – an expertly seared slab of loveliness that provides my friend with pleasure to the gills. It is accompanied by those jetsetting Tuscan, zolfino beans made to feel at home in a little Italy world of chilli, anchovy and olives, this time given a bit of chicory bite.

I can't speak for the the fish pie, but the Tuscan chocolate tart really did deserve that wicked tag. Cheeses, from Umbria and Lombardy, were made more memorable by the excellent handmade, savoury crispbread and, at last, no grapes, no celery.

Fifteen takes 30 unemployed young people a year on an apprenticeship scheme at a cost of £30,000 per student. This pays for a programme of college and in-house training, welfare support and sourcing trips to top producers. All the profits from the restaurant are ploughed back into a fund-raising foundation that aims to net £500k annually to “continue with work that will impact more young people in the community”.

There are no TV cameras any more, and the famous one only pops in now and again, but the story remains fascinating. That Fifteen has since expanded to Amsterdam, Melbourne and Cornwall, with kids who have gone on to cut the mustard at some of the world's very best restaurants, shows what a bit of passion and belief can do.

Yep, he's all right, that Jamie O.

Rating: 20/20
Breakdown: 10/10 food
5/5 service
5/5 ambience
Address: Fifteen London
15 Westland Place
London N1 7LP
Telephone: 0203 375 1515

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing, 14-15 worth a trip, 16-18 very good to exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 Faultless

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